Danny O’Neel

Matt Fratus

“Normally I watched music videos on MTV while getting ready for work and I saw all the channels showed the World Trade Center on fire, I watched the second plane crash into the building and it was my call to action,” Danny said. “As a young man I felt it was my responsibility to do something, doing nothing wasn’t an option and I’d rather get into the mix putting my life on the line because that was my only option.”

At 19, Danny enlisted into the Army, went to Airborne school, and tried out for the Ranger Indoctrination Program but it didn’t work out for him. He soon thereafter received orders to Korea where he met and trained under Jared Monti — posthumously received the Medal of Honor on June 21, 2006 attempting to save a wounded teammate — a mentor and close friend who taught him how to be a squad leader in the snowy mountains as they anticipated an upcoming Afghanistan deployment.

“My job was as a Forward Observer, a FISTer. We call for artillery and drop bombs, jump from planes, repel from helicopters, an exciting job that punched the adventure ticket,” he recalled. “I didn’t end up going to Afghanistan but my first trip to Iraq in March ‘03-Feb ‘04 wasn’t what I expected, we got mortared here and there but it was uneventful.”

One More Wave team rider Danny O'Neel

While training for more than a year with 4th Infantry Division for his second combat deployment, Danny bonded with his teammates and took his role as Bravo’s squad leader very seriously, knowing he was developing them to survive in war. “We deployed to Sadr City in December ‘05 and when my teammates started getting hurt I remember what my dad said to me, ‘the more you sweat in peace the less you bled in war’ and you feel like you didn’t prepare them enough when they got hurt.”

Danny carried this burden and it weighed heavily on his conscience. On several missions they were hit by RPGs and IEDs that rocked the whole Bradley fighting vehicle. “We joked about TBI, we’ve all been blown up, we didn’t want to show our vulnerability because that was the culture,” he said. “I was flagged because of my TBI and I became really bitter because at the time this was all I wanted in life.”

Surf Therapy

Danny got out of the military in 2008 and later found surf therapy when he attended an Operation Surf event where he was inspired to learn how to surf when he witnessed a triple amputee preparing on the beach to hit the waves.

“Surfing is something I didn’t do as a kid growing up inland between Stockton and Sacramento, California, so I always wanted to learn how to do it,” he said. “I have shrapnel in my back, was out of shape, and taking prescriptions from the VA, I love that surfing is a mix of discipline and recklessness. We must be disciplined because if we are not paying attention the waves will knock us over, if we don’t charge then we won’t have the fun we need to have. There needs to be a little bit of recklessness because no different from combat, if you’re in the wrong spot you’re about to get wrecked.”

For Danny, surfing is a spiritual experience and describes how all the issues he faces in everyday life is washed off by the waves like a baptism.

Customized Surfboard Art

 

“We lost nine people in Iraq, 14 back home to suicide. I have a 240 SAW, the main weapon on the board because we used it in Baghdad and it has sentimental value. I remember the serial number on it, it reminds me that we didn’t do this alone, a tool to do my job.” Now his tool from his previous career embodies the top of his customized surfboard providing a humbling reminder this is his new tool to achieve surf therapy.

“I also have the FISTer emblem, the majority of my commanders have been killed or injured and that is extraordinary and scary. I have the names of those KIA on top of the Army’s digital camo pattern because they compel me to live my best life and if I don’t I am spitting in their faces for them sacrificing their lives for me.”

Onward & Upward

Surfing has helped Danny tremendously and he values the camaraderie it brings. “Every Tuesday a group of us vets get together in Pacifica, sometimes Santa Cruz, and we surf and hangout. It provides us that brotherhood and we look out for each other and offer resources to any of us that needs it.”

In addition, Danny travels the country empowering our nation’s catastrophically wounded, injured, and ill veterans to overcome physical, mental, and emotional wounds incurred in the line of duty. “I do a lot of advocacy work and public speaking for Independence Fund’s Tiger Team 7,” he said. “We travel and speak to corporate America, high schools, and others, and teach them how they too can become better leaders and find purpose in life themselves to leave the world better than they found it.”

In the Army his role was guiding his team as a land navigation expert. As a civilian he jokes to his wounded and injured friends that they cannot navigate without a FISTer (the support) and believes his purpose now is to help them after their experiences with war.